Government Spending

GOP Food Stamp Bill Will Increase Government Spending

Don't believe what you read in The New York Times


The food stamp bill passed by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives earlier this month, widely criticized for supposedly cutting the nutrition assistance program to the poor, would actually raise spending over the next decade by 57 percent, to $725 billion from the $461.7 billion that was spent on the program in the last decade.

No sooner had the House voted, 217 to 2010, on September 19 to pass the Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act than the usual suspects were rushing to portray the measure as stingy and coldhearted. "House Republicans Pass Deep Cuts in Food Stamps," was the headline  in The New York Times national news section. The Republican "war on food stamps" shows that the congressmen are "meanspirited class warriors," wrote  Nobel laureate Paul Krugman.

That line of attack seems to be getting traction. "I agree with Krugman here," a prominent New York rabbi wrote on Facebook. A news reporter at the Wall Street Journal posted on Facebook, "It's stark to have this wonderful Pope preaching charity at the same time House Republicans are defunding food stamps."

Alas, the episode says more about the quality of Republican communications (poor) and of the press (often shallow and reflexively hostile to Republicans) than it does about what would actually happen to food stamps under the 110-page bill the House passed.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the House bill would spend $725 billion on food stamps over the years 2014 to 2023. The Department of Agriculture's web site offers a summary  of spending on the program that reports spending totaling $461.7 billion over the years 2003 to 2012, a period that included a dramatic economic downturn.

This is a great example of how and why it is so difficult to cut government spending, and how warped the debate over spending has become. The Republicans want to increase food stamp spending 57 percent. The Democrats had previously planned to increase it by 65 percent (to $764 billion over 10 years instead of the $725 billion in the Republican bill), so they depict the Republicans as "meanspirited class warriors" seeking "deep cuts."

Now, one can argue that because of inflation, or the eroding value of the dollar, the Republican increase of 57 percent is really some smaller percentage increase. But that pretty quickly turns into a discussion not of food stamp policy but of monetary policy. Which is a fine discussion to have some time, but not the one at hand here.

What's really in the Republican food stamp bill? The usual mix of special-interest silliness and occasional incremental progress that's in most big pieces of legislation. My personal favorite is Section 306, which gives the Secretary of Agriculture one year to conduct a review and report back to Congress on "the economic and public health benefits of white potatoes on low-income families who are determined to be at nutritional risk." There's also a mandate "to increase the purchase of Kosher and Halal food" for the emergency food assistance program. Another section deals with Indian tribes and the preparation and consumption of "traditional food," including "marine mammals."

One provision in the bill ends food stamp benefits for households in which a member receives "substantial lottery or gambling winnings." The next paragraph makes it clear the recipients can get back on the dole if they gamble away their winnings.

Another provision ends food stamp benefits for convicted murderers and rapists, but only if the conviction comes after the Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act is passed, so as to avoid the Constitution's Article I prohibition on ex post facto law.

The legislation tries to catch up with the "eat-local" movement, authorizing the use of food stamps for buying a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, share, and providing $20.6 million a year to support farmers' markets.

Other provisions in the bill are aimed at cracking down on fraud, encouraging able-bodied adult recipients to work, and making sure that state programs that allow food-stamp use at restaurants (a relatively new and growing phenomenon) are aimed at serving elderly, homeless, and disabled clients, rather than at people who would just rather go out to dinner.

The bill does not appear to address the desire by the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, to ban the use of food stamps for the purchase of sugary beverages. Nor does it appear to do anything to address the research linking food stamps to obesity among nonelderly women.

There will always be some people who are so sick, poor, old, young, or unlucky that they need help with food, and, despite what Professor Krugman would have you believe, there's a pretty broad consensus in this country about the desirability of helping those people, through both private charity and government programs. The real policy action is over how to strengthen the economy to the point where more people are able to feed themselves without help from the government or from charity. Instead, the politicians in Washington are mandating studies of white potatoes. Look for those spuds soon at a federally subsidized farmer's market near you, along with some halal marine-mammal-meat.

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  1. This seems like a disingenuous reading of the CBO estimate to me. This is what the CBO estimate actually says, in its cover page: “In its May 2013 baseline, CBO projected that spending for SNAP would total $764 billion over the 2014-2023 period. Relative to that baseline, we estimate that enacting H.R. 3102 would reduce direct spending by $39 billion over the 2014-2023 period.”

    Projecting a baseline under the status quo and comparing changes to that baseline is not a mere digression into monetary policy. It is the correct way to estimate the costs of a bill.

    In other words, the Republican-sponsored bill would decrease spending for SNAP over what it would be were the bill not passed. The CBO projection goes on to outline where these decreases would come from (primarily from kicking some people out of the program; somewhat from reducing benefits).

    1. So restraining the growth to only a 57% projected increase is a cut?

      Where did all the extra expense come from? We all know inflation doesn’t exist according to Krugman. It couldn’t be that the USDA is actively recruiting more SNAP recipients could it?

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  2. In the back of my mind I knew this already in spite of the constant negative press from NPR.

    Liars, all of them.

  3. Mostly inflation and population growth are what’s driving this “increase”. That isn’t a “minor digression into monetary policy”. That is what the program will cost in nominal terms, which is what is measured even if nothing in the law changes. Whenever anything about cuts comes up, Reason is quick to defend them by saying that they aren’t really cuts because funding is going to increase anyway. Well, yeah as a country’s economy and population grow, so does the absolute size of the government, all else being equal. Even a nightwatchman state in the US today is going to be bigger than the entire federal government in 1900, which was far from such a thing, in terms of nominal funding, because there are a lot more people around and the dollar is far weaker.

    These cuts along with the sequestration do involve real, actual cuts in benefits to real actual programs and recipients that exist right now. I’m all for cutting spending to a far greater degree than what the GOP has so far offered, but you guys can make a much more honest and convincing case for cuts.

    I also believe that food stamps could stand to be cut, but this should be after or at the same time as elimination of the price supports and tariffs that makes food so much more expensive than it should be and wipes out most of the value of this assistance.

    1. They are spending more in the next years than they do now. In what world outside of DC is that a “cut”?

      1. It’s a cut, because it will be harder to qualify and fewer benefits will be offered. As the economy and population grows, there will be more dollars to support the program. This doesn’t mean that SNAP shouldn’t be cut, but articles like these muddy the waters of this debate.

        1. Just because some fairytale projection of spending 10 years into the future claims that we will spend $X doesn’t make it so.

          You’re buying into the typical DC-bullshit budget projections. Everyone in DC knows that projections for spending or revenue beyond 1 year are a complete joke and just used as debate points. You seem to believe the bullshit.

          1. I thought this was the site where people were supposed to understand economics a little better.

            Do you really not understand why the program would cost more without being expanded? Really?

            1. Whether it costs more or not does not make it a cut, when funds allotted are continually increased.

        2. The largest aspect of population growth is illegal immigration.

      2. Spending in real terms per capita is going to go down. That is a metric that is far more important than the absolute nominal amount.

        1. In other words, it’s still not a cut.

        2. …absolute nominal amount.

          You realize that “absolute” and “nominal” mean completely different things, correct?

        3. Also,

          Spending in real terms per capita is going to go down.

          As I pointed out below, wouldn’t this be expected since the program has mushroomed in recent years due to a recession that, barring any further government action to exacerbate it, one would hope would be over 10 years from now? Should there be a fixed percentage of the population on food stamps regardless of economic conditions?

          1. Yeah, you would expect the number of people on food stamps FALLS as the economy grows, not the other way around.

    2. SNAP has already ballooned in both nominal and absolute terms in response to the recession. Assuming the recession will, at some point between now and 2023, actually end, wouldn’t it be proper for the program to actually spend less as fewer recipients participate? Or is dynamic scale a one-way ratchet?

    3. Mostly inflation and population growth are what’s driving this “increase”.

      A 57% increase over 9 years is a 5.1% annual increase. Right now, annual inflation is about 2% and population growth is about 0.7%. So even under the Republicans’ plan, it looks to me like the food stamp entitlement will grow beyond what is necessary to maintain today’s level of benefits.

      1. +1, even adjusting for pop growth and inflation this is Not a cut. Math, how does that shit work?

        1. I don’t think you’re getting it. Yes the projection is probably BS based on failing to realize that the numbers were swelled by the recession.

          There is a widespread failure, here, though, to distinguish between what CBO is projecting the program will cost and the debate over whether or not to reduce its scope.

          And the people who don’t get it are being really cocky about it for some reason.

          1. No, I think you are missing my point! I don’t need to know what the CBO’s projections are.

            I can be assume that inflation over the next 9 years is going to be under 4% per year and that the population growth rate is going to be under 1% per year.

            That’s a simple equation:
            1.04 * 1.01 exp 9 = 1.56

            Ergo the 57% increase the Republican are voting for is Not a cut.

            Granted, we might have high inflation or a sudden spike in immigration over the next 9 years, but if we do, the responsible approach is to deal with the situation then.

            1. Again, the cost projection and the bill to reduce the scope of the program are two different things.

              It is not that one side is saying they want a 65% increase while the other is saying they want a 57% increase. One side’s version of the program (the side that doesn’t want it changed) is estimated to result in a 65% cost increase over the next 10 years, while the other side’s version of the program (the side that wants to reduce its scope) would result in a 57% cost increase over the next 10 years.

              If you say that the estimate on which both numbers is based is wrong, that makes both numbers change, not just the one.

              Since you qualify for food stamps based on your circumstances, you can’t just say the program is going to cost x – you have to project based on how many people you think are going to qualify.

              Let’s say for the sake of argument that inflation and population growth both stop today. In that case, this bill would lead to a cost reduction.

              To condemns lefties for calling it a cut is disingenuous.

              1. “Since you qualify for food stamps based on your circumstances, you can’t just say the program is going to cost x – you have to project based on how many people you think are going to qualify.”

                This is true only insofar as the maximum qualifying circumstances remain static. But I doubt that’s the case. My guess is that, under the status quo, the maximum qualifications are set to increase as well. So hypothetically if in 2013 a $20K/year income gets you food stamps, but that floor is set to rise to $25K/year in 2020, then resetting it back down to say $22K/year is still an INCREASE, not a cut.

                1. Looks like I’m right…

                  “SNAP eligibility is limited to households with gross income of no more than 130% of the federal poverty guideline.”


                  Since the poverty line is 60% of the median income, then so as long as your “cut” to the snap program is less than the projected rise in the median income, your cut is still an increase.

  4. Wasn’t the vote 217 to 210? But, if want it to be 217 to 2010 who will argue.

  5. the research linking food stamps to obesity among non elderly women.

    300lb Welfare Queens

  6. Food/agriculture policy in this country largely sucks.

    We heavily subsidize corporate agribusiness to produce cheap foods that are in general terribly unhealthy for us and then subsidize the poor/disabled/elderly to purchase said cheap unhealthy foods (because that’s pretty much the only foods they can afford on SNAP). These foods lead to obesity, diabetes and all sorts of other health ailments that we as a society end up paying for through increased premiums on health insurance (whether or not Obamacare is around).

    I mean, literally, the country as a whole is getting generally screwed three times in this deal while the people who rely on food stamps are getting specifically screwed twice. But at least agribusiness is getting rich through it, amirite?

    1. No

      The people who rely on foodstamps aren’t getting screwed and neither are the grocery stores. Both are receiving subsidies.

      1. What a moron! (not you, the one we are humoring with response)

        So in his backwards mind, people who consume without producing are getting screwed by the productive…as if it was the imperative of producers to give them causeless filet mignon, and to accept slavery at the hands of the welfare bums.

        You get what you pay for, indeed.

    2. No you are not amirite.

      “(because that’s pretty much the only foods they can afford on SNAP). ”

      I recently watched a man buy a 100 lb. bag of crawfish with his Lone Star card. Crawfish are very expensive. While only a dollar or two alive that adds up to about 25 dollars per pound. As he was leaving the store I held the door for him and he said ,”thank you”. I asked him, “what for ? holding the door or buying yur crawfish ” ? He left and got into a late model SUV and left/

      I don’t buy crawfish because they are too expensive. I catch blue crab in my own traps and like them better. However, I am not happy about people who have Lone Star Cards buying crawfish with them while taxpayers can’t afford $ 150 or $200 dollars for a sack and have to buy something cheaper to eat.

    3. Seems like the exact kind of irrational policy you’d expect from a Democracy.

    4. “”These foods lead to obesity, diabetes and all sorts of other health ailments that we as a society end up paying for through increased premiums on health insurance””

      Is that really the food policy, or the insurance policy? I mean, a standard business model for an insurance company is to screen applicants by expected costs and charge accordingly. I mean, you being a crappy driver doesn’t raise my auto insurance. Is there some reason that’s not happening in the health insurance market?

    5. “But at least agribusiness is getting rich through it, amirite?”

      How so? Subsidies don’t increase margins across an entire industry. They can only help one company at the expense of another.

  7. Population growth is at 0.9% (and slowing) and inflation doesn’t exist (just kidding). If you assume a 3% inflation rate, total real spending per capita should increase at 3.9% per year. Lets round up to 4%. Compounded at 10 years, that’s a 48% increase in per year spending in the 10th year.

  8. I do agree that the author should perform a better analysis for the article. By leaving out population growth and inflation in the analysis, the author is guilty of a common Krugman ploy: manipulate data to create your own facts while leaving out important information that goes against your point. I’m not saying this spending should not be cut, but libertarians are supposed to be better than the likes of Krugman at this sort of thing.

  9. The leftoids will be whining about the evil Republicans who won’t submit to slavery–right up until the day that the dollar collapses. Leftoids are leftoids because they mutilate their minds on the pretense of escaping reality, the pretense of pretending that reality can be whatever they want it to be as long as no one says otherwise, that men can consume without producing by means of a magic money printer.

    There comes a day, gents. The American welfare state has grown so obscenely bloated by abusing the dollar’s global reserve status. There will come a day that the rest of the world will stop allowing us to export our inflation into their countries.

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  11. It does not make a difference at all when the allocated funds are increased continuously. Therefore spending in real terms per capita is going to go down as mostly inflation and population growth are what are driving this ‘increase’.

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